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Not to be Fiddled With

Few people have ever heard the fiddlers Mark Wilson records. He's trying to change that.


South of Columbus, Ohio, the area around Highway 23 is a maze of rows of hand-scrawled signs, advertising small-farm vegetables and the occasional antique shop or ice-cream stand. But not long after you cross into Kentucky, Highway 23 becomes the Music Highway, and the signs change: Instead of locally grown tomatoes, it's bluegrass and country stars they celebrate, like Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakum. Highway 23 boasts no marker celebrating Buddy Thomas, though; nor George Hawkins or Bob Prater, three of the type of indigenous fiddlers who once populated the area around the Ohio and Licking rivers, a region that produced traditional musicians much as it might still turn out tomatoes. Unique to the region, their tunes contained the lilt and finesse of expanses farther north, but with a slurred driving force that separated the music from that of their Scottish ancestors, making the tunes just southern enough to directly influence bluegrass, that musical hybrid that old-time fiddle music often gets mistaken for.

But while the Music Highway might ignore these musicians, one of this weekend's travelers along that same Pittsburgh-to-Kentucky route has spent the past 30-plus years trying to ensure that others don't. University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor Mark Wilson makes this trek because following the Music Highway is the first step on the quest to the house of Roger Cooper, tucked away in the rolling hills of Garrison in Lewis County, Kentucky -- near enough to the same area that spawned unabashed pop-culture embarrassment Billy Ray Cyrus. Cooper is an extraordinary fiddler and 53-year-old vessel for the music he learned from that neck of the woods, tunes culled from years listening to musicians such as Thomas and Hawkins -- tunes that, in many cases, Cooper is the last real link to. It's not that he's the last person who knows the tunes, but he's certainly close to the only remaining soul who can truly lay claim to them or play them in a style indigenous to the region, a situation that's frustrating only to those precious -- perhaps sanctimonious -- few who might care. Wilson is among those few, but more importantly, he's the one creating some marker to this music, traveling to the rural musical hotbeds from which it springs and recording the musicians -- for listeners of the present and the future, and for himself.

The arcane directions Cooper gave me over the phone follow a path across the river into Kentucky and then "down the new highway," meaning the double-A, to a county road and a left turn that winds through hollers not nearly as claustrophobic as those deep in the coalmine-scarred regions further south. "You're to look out for McDowell Road" -- which as it turns out, of course, has no sign -- "Turn left and watch for an old gas line about two miles up." Cooper's house sits just past it.

Roger Cooper and his wife live in a modest two-story farm house with a small cow pasture on one side and just enough land on the other to make them feel neighbor-less. But despite a general lack of work in the region, word has been getting out about cheap terrain in Lewis County, and the effects can be seen in the form of an increasing number of homes just on up the holler.

Cooper's young granddaughters tear through the living room as he greets me at the door, casually dressed in overalls and a simple cranberry shirt. He and his guitar accompanist, Robin Kessinger, are perched on two straight-backed chairs in the living room, two microphones cocked in opposing directions toward each seat. Kessinger is not only the great-nephew of legendary West Virginia fiddler Clark Kessinger, who recorded prolifically with his nephew Luches on guitar between 1928 and '30 as the Kessinger Brothers, but is, in all probability, the hottest flat-picking guitar virtuoso alive today. As Cooper puts it, "I always think he's not gonna make it [through his intricate guitar runs], but he always does."

Past the bustling grandchildren, silent beyond the furious guitar licks and fiddle tuning, another figure sits tucked away out of sight in the next room, his presence merely suggested by the wire trails leading from the microphones.

Mark Wilson is an unassuming 50-something with graying hair and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the music he records. Much of this has come from simply spending time with many players over the course of his lifetime. Thirty years ago, when Wilson first started venturing out into Kentucky and other areas, finding one traditional fiddler usually guaranteed the discovery of many more -- all he had to do was ask. Nobody, whether it be in Southern Appalachia, the Ozarks or the conservative communities of Cape Breton Island, was trying to keep old-time fiddle music a secret.

While Wilson does suggest things to the musicians, he stays out of the way, content to be simply "the guy with the tape machine." He doesn't arrange the music for sessions, manipulate recordings (aside from the occasional splice) or play along -- though he certainly could. While Wilson can and often does write liner notes to the discs, the notes -- as respectful as they are insightful -- also show that he would rather the musicians tell their own stories in uninterrupted narratives, something many of them do. In fact, though he's often responsible for the discs -- from the finding of the musicians to the making of the recording -- Wilson wants no credit at all: He merely sees his modest recording equipment and long-time record label connections as necessities which enable him to give recognition where it's long overdue.

Wilson's involvement with the folk-music process goes back to childhood, but it was in graduate school at Harvard that his own ability on fiddle, banjo and guitar connected him to the old-time music scene on the East Coast. Among those Wilson befriended was Bill Nowlin, one of the three founders of legendary folk, bluegrass and ethnic music label Rounder Records -- now perhaps the best-known and most successful folk-music record label in America. (Rounder's success was most recently bolstered by the popularity explosion of bluegrass diva Alison Krauss.) Wilson and Nowlin met when the latter was selling his imprint's first release at a bluegrass show.

"Mark was really interested in old-time fiddle in particular," says Nowlin today, "and he had a proselytizing sense of trying to advocate this music. A lot of the people he's recorded have truly learned their music through oral tradition. That's really rare, I mean there can't be much of that left. This is something worth documenting and his primary concern is documenting these musicians before we can't." Wilson's friendship with Nowlin allowed him access to collectors with piles of old 78 rpm records; that, in turn, led him to editing and writing liner notes for many of Rounder's reissue series. Anyone with a concern for this music could probably take a look at their favorite recordings, whether they be the original release of legendary West Virginia fiddler Ed Haley's scratchy, early-'50s cylinder recordings, the aforementioned Buddy Thomas' sole release, Kitty Puss, or the seminal ballad and banjo collection, High Atmosphere, and find Wilson's name in some context. Many of these initial vinyl releases have been issued on CD, while Wilson's more recent work has been introduced under the moniker of the North American Traditional Series.

But for Wilson, editing and writing about such collections wasn't enough.

"I met Gus [Meade], who had been out interviewing all these musicians like Doc Roberts," says Wilson. Roberts recorded in the '20s and '30s and was a favorite of many of the fiddlers Roger Cooper would eventually learn from. "I suggested we ought to record their music as well. In 1972, with the intention of recording Roberts, who wasn't playing well [at the time] and didn't want to record, we recorded Asa Martin, who was Roberts' guitarist, and Buddy Thomas, and one thing led to another."

While the notes to any of Wilson's recordings reveal a tremendous amount about the artists, usually through their own stories and anecdotes, they also show that Wilson has an encyclopedic knowledge of fiddling styles and the travels and transformations of the tunes. Nowlin claims, off the top of his head, that Rounder has released "Four or five albums a year, over the last several years, that Wilson recorded." The list includes many other Kentucky fiddlers like Owen "Snake" Chapman and J.P. Fraley, as well as Iowa's Dwight Lamb, Missouri Ozark square-dance king Bob Holt, and Buddy McMaster, champion of Cape Breton fiddling -- as well as uncle to popular artist Natalie McMaster. As of right now, there must be more than a dozen upcoming releases, including the session at Cooper's home.

Many of these musicians appear in the photographs that cover the desk in Wilson's office, hidden in the back of Pitt's Philosophy Department in a room that might be described as spacious, were it not for wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. The photos, like the recordings they accompany, are Wilson's handiwork, and he's similarly unassuming about these crafted artifacts. There's Iowan Dwight Lamb playing squeezebox on the stoop of a caboose, and the Cape Breton old-style master Donald MacLellan, looking much younger than his 84 years in his gray suit and cerulean tie, fiddling for the trees. (MacLellan died in June.) There's a multitude of black-and-white photos of the greatly missed Buddy Thomas with his fiddle and his dog, and color shots of Roger Cooper, instrument on his neck, communing with nearby rivers.

In spite of his 50-odd years and graying hair, Wilson's face still has a boyish mischief. Maybe it's from devoting his life -- at least part time -- to documenting the sounds he loves. Because while there's little popular appreciation for any of it, Wilson is getting this music heard despite the industry and its ever-outrageous retail climate. And maybe it's partially because Wilson is helping, in his small, unsung ways, to dispel the myth propagated by the folk revivalists of his generation -- those who would have you believe they salvaged traditional fiddling by simply copying muddy recordings of old musicians.

Cooper takes his seat and readies himself to record a tune he and Kessinger have been struggling to get "right." To Cooper, "getting it right" means finding a way to play it like it used to sound -- when Cooper plays it, that's the way it still does.

"We could make it spunkier," says Cooper, "in that old-time, Georgia style."

"That's from right around here," corrects Wilson. As they launch in, I keep an eye on Cooper's bowing arm. There's an intricacy in his music that allows little rest. He juts over streams of notes and worries every last morsel from his phrases, never satisfied with any of the takes. Kessinger adds something akin to the raucous punctuations of the guitarists from the late-1920s golden era of hillbilly 78 rpm records plus the slightest hint of swing. From the next room, Wilson nudges him on: "What's another of Buddy [Thomas]'s tunes?" Cooper dives into "Birdie," a tune Wilson later admitted to having never heard Thomas play, even while he was recording the late fiddler for Rounder Records back in '74.

According to Wilson, the late musicologist and enthusiast Gus Meade -- who, along with Wilson in the '70s, knew and recorded many of the fiddlers Cooper learned from firsthand -- made Buddy Thomas do all his tunes five or six times, "Which was a waste of time because they were all good." The same could be said of Cooper, who is his own harshest critic: He picks up on things during playbacks that nobody else can or will hear.

"There used to be fiddlers about every direction you'd go in here," says Cooper, "but I can't find anyone around here now to play with." Cooper doesn't go to the folk-music festivals, the gatherings that happen all over the U.S. where fiddle music now lives in the hands of people who have mostly learned from recordings or from other young players. "I've got no problem with festivals," explains Cooper, "but I need somebody who knows the tunes I play."

The isolation has driven him to figuring out ways to accompany himself. In a feat none of his teachers would have been able to consider, Cooper has rigged wooden foot pedals up to a Casio keyboard. Here, with either his electric, four-stringed mandolin or fiddle and the cheapest of fake rock 'n' roll beats, he can step on the right pedal and get the chord changes he might have gotten from a guitarist back in the good old days. He laughs knowingly at the stupidity of the rhythm accompaniment. But it's not merely the invention of such technology that's such an ironic slap in the face to the tradition Cooper perpetuates. It's the fact that he wouldn't need it if there were some actual people around to play with.

Wilson's recording projects stem in part from his personal frustration with the folk-music revivalists of the '50s and '60s. Even as many revivalists and their limited sphere of influences benefited from that musical boom, many more excellent traditional musicians were never even recorded. According to Wilson, the effort was simply never made.

"There was somewhat of a contempt for the musicians and their styles -- or at the very least, a discomfort with country people," says Wilson. The impact of that loss, and the homogenizing effect of mainstream folkies like the Kingston Trio, lingers today. Wilson offers the examples of Roger Cooper, a firmly traditional player, versus fiddler Bruce Molsky, an immensely popular Grammy nominee who has drawn attention to himself while refashioning old-time fiddle music and, some would say, diluting it in the name of "continuing the tradition."

"What we have now represent cover versions of the old tunes," says Wilson. "I see no clear difference between this and the time in the late '50s when Pat Boone was doing Little Richard. The line has been crossed when you move from appreciation to exploitation. There's a syndrome that you see in the revival where some urban 'hillbilly' will claim to have learned everything from somebody like Tommy Jarrell, but it is usually a superficial attempt to gain credentials -- rather as Bob Dylan made so much hay from visiting Woodie Guthrie a few times. Someone like Roger should be getting more attention, but nobody wants to hear him play."

But there's another side to Cooper's situation, a catch-22 that simultaneously makes him attractive to Wilson and a dead loss as a commercial recording project. It's the beautiful stubbornness behind Cooper's music -- that refusal to bow to the festival circuit, or to even take on an accompanist just for the sake of getting gigs. Because besides being without peer as a traditional Appalachian musician, Roger Cooper simply can't -- or, more likely, won't -- promote himself in any way.

"He wouldn't know how to do it in any case," says Wilson. "Getting people to sit down and listen to pure fiddle music isn't easy. Roger has an aesthetic about what should be in a fiddle tune -- good fiddlers are like that. Just learning the notes is one thing, but unless you grow up in it, there's something missing."

Question Mark: An interview with folk music collector
Mark Wilson

How did you first encounter traditional music?

Growing up in the '50s in Southern Oregon there was more awareness of folk song and there was more to be heard. In the third grade I sang "The Ballad of the Boll Weevil" at a local talent show. I had to make up the tune because I didn't have a clue what that was. But I managed to memorize all 14 verses. Then I got my first Leadbelly record -- which was a revelation to me. There went the Kingston Trio records.

There was an old cowboy who used to come on television for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch and sing things like "There's an Empty Cot in the Bunkhouse Tonight" and "My Mary," from Milton Brown. He occasionally plugged for his cleaning business, "Eddie's Drive-in Cleaners, 44 North Riverside." Pretty soon, I started sending off to Folkways Records, which would sell you three albums for $10. I got the [highly influential collection] Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and there was a tune on there, "Cowboy Cole Younger," by Ed Crain, who turned out to be the same guy I'd been watching on television. So, I borrowed a tape recorder and my mother drove me over to visit him. Had I known more about all this, I would have found more musicians.

At the University of Washington, Seattle, you heard a lot more of these musicians?

Back then, the folk societies brought in lots of people. I saw Mississippi bluesmen Bukka White and Son House. Now all these organizations have been taken over by the singer-songwriters and they will not have anything to do with traditional artists. Folk music has been appropriated by the middle class for their own purposes. This happened a long time ago. I don't like it but there isn't anything I can do about it.

Are you referring to the fact that many people think of Peter, Paul and Mary when they think of folk music?

You look at where it says "traditional folk music" and that turns out to be the Kingston Trio, as if "traditional" simply means "old." The whole folk song movement has been completely divorced from "folks" except for the few folk song collectors, who get trashed [in the press]. I mean, [pre-eminent song collector] Alan Lomax was a jerk, but folks like him were the only people who had any contact with the music. At the time that the folk-music boom of the late '50s and '60s was going on, there were so many fantastic players [still living] who we never heard. Nobody made any attempt to visit them or do anything with them. It was ridiculous because folk song was so much more a part of American life -- in the cities, everywhere.

No matter how many records you collect and consume, hearing the old ballad singers, banjo players and fiddlers who've grown up with this music strikes a much deeper note. But eventually, most people have to rely on recordings -- some made by you. Is what you're doing with Rounder merely for preservation?

I don't know how to answer for Rounder Records! On their part, it's one of the last corporate charities. I mean Columbia used to sponsor Lomax -- those days are completely gone. Nobody but Rounder is really doing this anymore and it adds up to a fair amount of money. The last trip up to Cape Breton, by the time we got Morgan [MacQuarrie, fiddler] and spent a few days up there it cost about $2,500 just for expenses.

Bill Nowlin, an old friend of mine, founder of the company and an old anarchist, has got to get a lot of the credit. I mean I started out sifting through old 78s for reissue projects. The first thing I did was put together the [blind West Virginia street fiddler] Alfred Reed collection. One of the first things I recorded for them was an album by Ozark balladeer Almeda Riddle. The Buddy Thomas album was recorded in '74 and I edited the Ed Haley collection for them in maybe '75.

Why has your work been so concentrated on fiddlers?

To some extent because of the Grand Ole Opry, fiddle players have maintained a greater social function than the old-time ballad singers. Much of the banjo playing went the way of Earl Scruggs and bluegrass while, since the '70s, the number of ballad singers has dropped off all together. Plus the fiddle has always been America's premier folk instrument. Plus, the song collectors did record the old ballad singers and got that stuff in the books. But, in terms of fiddle music, our current knowledge of it is quite skewed. It's just as venerable a tradition as the old ballads and there's more "folk creativity" in the fiddle tunes. Really, so there's also the greatest need: My collaborators and I must have recorded about 1,000 tunes and if I hadn't recorded them, they might have vanished. Even something the revivalists have gotten a hold of, like "Briar Picker Brown," was something Morris Allen taught Buddy -- and I recorded them both. Nobody else played that piece back then.

The two volumes of Kentucky fiddling were like new continents full of music for fiddle nuts.

Well, the tapes sat around for 20 years before the CDs finally came out, which is something I'm kind of unhappy about. Rounder should be able to at least get the money back that they spend -- I mean, they might sell 2,000 copies at most. You know, Ed Haley is considered the height of skill now but those recordings might have ended up in the Dumpster if we hadn't intervened.

Things have gotten worse in the last five or six years. Thanks to the rise of 'world music' there's simply not even a browser for most of the things I've recorded. Occasionally, the Cape Breton stuff will even sell better because it gets lumped in with world stuff. But I find it astounding that you can go to a record store and see 20 times as much Cajun music, which is an incredibly small area, and no genuine Appalachian music.

Why should anyone care about real Appalachian or real Cape Breton or traditional anything?

That's a problem where the critic might confuse silly innovation with genuine creativity. I mean Roger isn't out to synthesize with rock music, which is what's happened to so much Cape Breton music. Someone like Donald MacLellan, who has a completely unique style, isn't trying to be innovative. His personality is there but he's not trying to change the tune. I mean, [Bruce] Molsky, by say, putting African rhythms in Appalachian music, is ending up with this fusion that you can hear on NPR. There's so much more genuine intellect and musicality in what Roger's doing.

Really, I just hope Rounder can sell enough copies. Truthfully, I think it's too late for this to do any good. I remember going into the House of Blues somewhere and seeing a bunch of upper-middle-class white people with plaques and pictures of impoverished blues musicians like Fred McDowell -- whom I met on several occasions. And I thought it was sad -- the money came into this music far too late to do most of these artists any good. The music like I've recorded, in 20 years, might go a similar route. I can't worry about all that though. I'm just glad I got to meet these people and hear all this music.


Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky Vol. 1 Up The Ohio and Licking Rivers (Rounder 0376, 1997)

Easily one of the most remarkable and varied collections of the music ever, this, the first of two volumes (with promises of a third) features many of the people Roger Cooper learned from, including George Hawkins, Bob Prater, and Buddy Thomas, recorded in the early '70s. Hawkins' tunes in particular show a concern for execution that simply no longer exists. The music is a potent mixture of modal (also known as "the key of mountain minor") tunes derived from the early, Scots-Irish settlers, black-influenced hoedowns, and more sophisticated quadrilles that might have been played at fancier affairs. With help from Gus Meade and John Harrod, this addictive collection is a fine place to start. Suggested companions are Roger Cooper's Going Back to Old Kentucky and Buddy Thomas' Kitty Puss.

Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton Vol. 2 The Rover's Return (Rounder 82161, 2002)

This second volume of what promises to be a four-part series features the fiddling of Willie Kennedy and John MacDougall (both of whom have upcoming CDs devoted to them) among others. With piano accompaniment largely supplied by Gordon MacLean (who features prominently throughout the series), this is some of the most ferocious, rhythmically intense and spookiest fiddle music ever. Here is hardcore, old-time, modal Scottish fiddling, before "celtic" became a term for watered-down Scottish-influenced fusion. MacDougall's 11-minute medley at the disc's close alone elevates itself to a rhythmic and drone-enhanced intensity easily comparable to the Morocco's most driving Gnawa music.

Bob Holt Got a Little Home to Go to (Rounder 0432, 1998)

An unassuming collection, this disc intersperses live square-dance tunes featuring Holt backed by an army of guitar players romping through mountain classics like "Carroll County Blues" and "Sally Goodin," with solo pieces recorded away from the dance floor that show Holt's diversity and pure Ozark drive. He plays odd rags, well-known breakdowns and the eerie, modal piece that gives this collection its title.

Donald MacLellan The Dusky Meadow (Rounder 82161, 2003)

One of this year's North American Traditions series releases is a full disc of old-time fiddling from Donald MacLellan, who was 84 at the time the reels for this disc were turning. Wilson had already been fanatical about MacLellan's 78s and was proud to be able to get this music committed to tape. "We were all trying to perfect our music," MacLellan has said of his ability to strengthen the musical connection to his Scottish heritage over a lifetime of fiddling. Created away from urban areas or outside influences, Meadow is about as close as one can get to the intensity, sadness and splendor of the music's roots. Fortunately for MacLellan's legacy, the disc was released before he passed away, on June 11, not too long after his 85th birthday.

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